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Finding a European Way: Kharkiv's East Opera Heads West

Blair A. Ruble
Kharkiv, Ukraine - May 08, 2021: The Kharkiv State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre with fountains and vibrant pansies flowers blooming in spring
KHARKIV, UKRAINE - The Kharkiv State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre pictured on May 08, 2021


The European Parliament granted Ukraine candidate status on June 23, 2022. Two days later, a large Russian rocket struck Kharkiv’s Freedom Square, damaging both the Kharkiv State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre and the neighboring Kharkiv Philharmonic.

These two events capture Ukraine’s—and Kharkiv’s—current moment. The local population has been turning to the west following the lifting of Soviet-era restrictions on expressions of Ukrainian identity more than three decades ago. Those who view the predominantly Russophonic city as part of a so-called Russian World seek to turn back the clock through violence. The futility of such misadventure might have been better understood had those in charge in Russia viewed the Kharkiv Opera as something more than a rocket target.

Ukraine’s second-largest city’s opera company—the Kharkiv State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, founded in 1925—has been a center of artistic innovation throughout the period of Ukrainian independence. Beginning in 2018, the theater formed the East Opera (Skhid Opera) ensemble to serve as a European center of Ukrainian musical and theater development. The goal was to reestablish the artistic dialogue with Europe interrupted during the twentieth century rather than replace one dominant outside culture with another.

East Opera’s initiatives supported the work of young artists in theatrical arts ranging from design, lighting, and sound technologies to performance, with an eye toward integrating Ukrainian performing arts into a broader European cultural endeavor. The establishment of a “sacred music bridge” electronically connecting Kharkiv with the Vatican was symbolic of the company’s European orientation.

In late April, as the Russian attack on Kharkiv intensified, East Opera leaders Igor Tuluzov and Armen Kaloyan accepted an invitation for their opera, choral, and ballet companies to tour Lithuania as a sign of solidarity. This “European Way” expedition solidified the long-standing connection between Kharkiv and Western artists and helped raise important funds for the Ukrainian war effort.

Touring Lithuania by bus, the musicians and dancers spent a month performing in historic churches, universities, and concert halls in Vilnius, Kaunas, Klaipeda, and smaller towns throughout the country. The artists met with their Lithuanian counterparts and taught master classes to rising musicians and dancers. Toward the end of their Lithuanian ramble, a quintet of musicians performed the Ukrainian national anthem in a gentle field overlooking a calm lake bedecked with birch trees. East Opera director Kaloyan used the setting to thank the Lithuanian hosts for their humanity, empathy, and concern. He noted that the hearts of company members beat in unison with those of the ordinary Europeans for whom they have been performing. A similar outpouring of solidarity with European culture was evident at every stop.

The tour continued to Austria, where, on May 31, the Lyatoshynsky Trio (Mykhailo Zakharov on violin, Roman Lopatynsky on piano, Oleksiy Shadrin on cello) performed in Vienna’s historic Ehrbar Saal. The trio, formed in 2019, is named after composer Borys Mykolayovych Lyatoshynsky, who brought together Ukrainian and European classical musical strains.

Lyatoshynsky’s legacy symbolizes the potential for Ukrainian musicians to engage creatively with their European counterparts rather than just earning performance fees. Lyatoshynsky has become widely honored as the father of contemporary Ukrainian music. A native of Zhytomyr, he simultaneously earned a law degree from Kyiv University and graduated from the Kyiv Conservatory at the conclusion of World War I.

Steeped in the artistic ferment of the first Ukrainian republic, Lyatoshynsky explored atonality, which was emerging as a new musical language in Western Europe. His works drew on both Russian and European contemporaries and predecessors, including Robert Schumann, Piotr Ilych Tchaikovsky, and Sergei Rachmaninoff. He was particularly influenced by the music of Alexander Scriabin and the era’s French impressionism at a time when Russian and European composers were jointly exploring the boundaries of the nineteenth-century musical canon.

Lyatoshynsky’s experimentation placed him at odds with the principles of socialist realism imposed under Stalin. As criticism of his music grew for its “decadence, formalism, and cacophony,” he turned to conducting and teaching at the Kyiv Conservatory (and, during the late 1930s and early 1940s, at Moscow Conservatory). His later cantatas, choral works, symphonic poems, symphonies, and film scores quarried the harmonies of Ukrainian folk music for inspiration. These works are only now being published, enhancing his growing reputation.

By June, the East Opera tour had reached Slovakia, where concerts continued to amplify the cultural connections between Kharkiv and Europe. The company triumphed at an evening of organ and choral music at Bratislava’s St. Martin’s Cathedral, once again combining European and Ukrainian classical repertory. As in Lithuania, the visitors conducted master classes and concerts in schools, community centers, and concert halls large and small throughout the country.

On June 25, the same day a rocket fell on their home theater in Kharkiv, East Opera was celebrating another successful concert, this time in Central Slovakia’s Banská Bystrica. In the thirteenth-century Romanesque Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, the soloists and choir from Kharkiv performed, among other works, Mozart’s Requiem.

The coincidental juxtaposition of Kharkiv musicians singing European music in a European setting and the damage inflicted by the Russians on their theater at home exemplifies a cultural transition that has taken place over several decades in Kharkiv. Grasping the opportunity provided by the end of the Soviet Union, the residents of predominantly Russian-speaking Kharkiv increasingly have looked west for inspiration and identity. The current war embeds this change in the deepest and most personal emotions of tens of thousands of Kharkiv citizens. Incalculable time will pass before Ukrainian residents find it possible to acknowledge the humanity, empathy, and concern of their neighbors in Russian Federation as members of East Opera just thanked their Lithuanian hosts.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Blair A. Ruble

Blair A. Ruble

Distinguished Fellow;
Former Wilson Center Vice President for Programs (2014-2017); Director of the Comparative Urban Studies Program/Urban Sustainability Laboratory (1992-2017); Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies (1989-2012) and Director of the Program on Global Sustainability and Resilience (2012-2014)
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more